On a recent Saturday, a dozen mountain bikers from Bend, Oregon, met at a trailhead east of Seattle. Asked what brought them there, one said, “We heard about some rad new trails in this area and decided to check them out.”
Wait a minute. Riders coming from Bend to Seattle? Isn’t Bend the world-class riding destination, while Seattle is the place you drive by, very slowly in traffic, on your way to British Columbia?
For years that was true. Over a two-decade span starting in the early 1990s, Seattle riders tried to get one, just one, new trail built. Asked about local access, they would shrug with embarrassment and direct people to Bellingham, Vancouver, Whistler… or Bend.
Mountain biking around Seattle was land-use-planning’s whipping post. Hiker icon Harvey Manning, who dubbed mountain bikers, “testosterone-charged young laddies racing around in their sisters’ underwear,” was renowned for jamming his walking stick in the spokes of mountain bikes — even on posted open trails. “Whatever success we had back then was measured in what we could keep from being closed,” recalls Art Tuftee, a local trail builder.
At one point many of the early mountain bike set were ready to pack it in. “Everybody else threw up their hands and gave up,” said David Graves, a Seattle parks planner and strategic advisor. “But Art and Len (Francies), those two stayed with it.”
What a difference 20 years makes. Hardly a month goes by without a new section of Seattle-area trail coming online. Tiger Mountain, long the sole legal outlet offering a measly 7 miles of not-that-great trail (while hikers had nearly 80 comparatively lush miles), has since 2012 added 12 challenging, expertly crafted segments totaling more than 20 miles. New routes also are in place at Grand Ridge near Issaquah and Black Diamond in southeast King County. There are also prime builds underway at Darrington, north of Everett, and Skykomish, in the Cascade foothills between Seattle and Stevens Pass.
The centerpiece of this boom — the trail that lured the Bend riders north — is Olallie State Park, featuring a 9-mile rocket ship of swoopy switchbacks and undulating straightaways just south of the Interstate 90 corridor near North Bend. Long envisioned by Francies and Tuftee, Olallie was on the books for 25 years before opening this summer. Francies, who died suddenly on a New Year’s Day ride this year, didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled. But in-the-know mountain bikers think of him every time they ride the trail.
Olallie quickly achieved showcase status. “This may be the best mountain biking trail in the state,” raved veteran cross-country racer James Scarlett-Lyon after one ripping run.
His ranking may be temporary. Just west of Olallie, the Raging River State Forest is undergoing transformational construction that ultimately will serve up 40 new miles of trail featuring 10,000 feet of climbing. The plan is to connect it with Tiger, which in turn will link to nearby Grand Ridge in a bonanza of all-day rides for every skill level.
The Puget Sound region booked 60 miles of additional trail from 2015-2017, and by decade’s close, the goal is more than 100 miles statewide of new riding over a 5-year stretch.
Mileage is nice, especially in a population center of nearly 4 million. But these also are high quality builds. Constructed by paid pros typically led by one of mountain biking’s foremost designers, Mike Westra, the new trails are expertly bermed, erosion-resistant, flow-optimized and geared to climb gently while offering rollicking descents. A number of routes, including Raging River, have or will have uphill and downhill specific trails to reduce congestion and maximize ride value. For long-suffering stalwarts, this is the paradise they never expected to live to see. And it’s all happened so fast, right? Not exactly.
“Everything that’s happening all at once has been in the works a decade or more,” said Justin Vander Pol, a key player in the turnaround. Vander Pol banged his head on all the walls: environmental opposition, mountain bike in-fighting, bureaucratic stonewalling, bans on trails mountain bikers helped build. Things that, all too often, still stand in the way of trail access in many parts of the western U.S.
“Momentum takes time,” noted Vander Pol, executive director of the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club from 2002 to 2007. “You’re looking at five years for best-case scenario, 20 years worst. It took us 10 years just to get the trust of the environmental community.”
So getting new trail built starts with patience. But what else does it take? Magic rainwater? Secret sauce brewed from moss and mud of the Pacific Northwest? Not really. But the Pacific Northwest’s success has offered up some teachable moments.
Washington’s Recreational Use Immunity Statute limits liability in sporting accidents. In test cases, courts have made it clear that property owners offering public access can’t be sued for injuries as long as they’re not charging user fees. The 1967 law is not unique (most states have similar statutes), but Washington’s active outdoors constituency has worked with local legislators to keep it current and iron-clad. The law is tested pretty regularly (18 times in the past three years), says Scott Feir, a Seattle attorney. People get hurt and look for a pocket to get some money out of. But so far it’s proven to be a good policy for the state to have, encouraging land owners to open up their space. “This is big for land managers,” adds Graves. “So far people have not been successful suing in Washington.”
It also helps to have recreation managers who ride mountain bikes. Key parks and rec directors in city, county, state, and federal land-management jurisdictions have happened to be avid riders, as are a number of staffers. They don’t crow about it, as their mission is to be inclusive of all constituent groups. But they’re a dream team compared to the dystopian era when decision makers went out of their way to marginalize mountain bikers.
“Being able to go riding with site managers is huge,” confirmed Westra. “We really got lucky with (David) Graves. He knew how to get the yes’s and dodge the no’s.”
Bureaucratic surrogacy is another key factor. You need skills that have nothing to do with bike riding. Grant writing, map making, deciphering master plans, using volunteer hours for matching funds, and proposing land swaps are all likely to come into play. Example: A huge breakthrough on the Olallie trail came when the state agreed to decommission roads close to Seattle’s Cedar River watershed (the city’s water supply) in exchange for peripheral trail access at certain points, as outlined in a 60-page 2002 feasibility survey.
Seattle’s proximity to Canada was another driver. Riders would head north to B.C. for a weekend and come back asking, “Why can’t we have trails like that?” says Westra, a former Hewlett-Packard project manager whose mapping and computer modeling chops pushed several projects over the top. “All the land managers were going to Whistler and the North Shore. That really helped us get more aggressive trails.”
A powerful lobby is also key, of course. The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance became a statewide powerhouse. Membership more than doubled in the past three years to just under 4000, with a goal of 5000 by 2020. The annual budget is $2 million, with a paid staff of 20-plus in winter, 40-plus in summer. Advocacy, trail-building, boot camps, advance classes, and group ride retreats are all part of the organization’s mission. “I feel like I’m running a company,” said Evergreen executive director Yvonne Kraus.
Finally, like it or not, independence from IMBA helped move things forward. Though counterintuitive at the time, a pivotal decision by the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance nearly a decade ago not to align with the nation’s leading MTB advocacy group wound up strengthening local visibility and leverage.
“It was a tough call, but the right one,” recounted Glenn Glover, an electrical engineer with business management chops who was Evergreen’s director at the time.
The clincher came at a trail work gathering with IMBA, aimed at bonding. In follow-up publicity, photos and copy ballyhooed the effort as all-IMBA. “It was as though Evergreen didn’t exist,” Tuftee remembered.
“My thing was, if you can show me how (allying with IMBA) would be better for the mountain bikers of Washington, I’d listen,” Glover recalled. “But I never saw it.”
Distinction from IMBA was made even trickier by the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club’s name change in 2008 to the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, spearheaded by marketing wizard Jon Kennedy. The first six months after the change were spent persuading members not to call it (sounds-like-IMBA) EMBA.
The change, which wasn’t universally embraced at first, turned out to be spot on. Washington’s nickname is the Evergreen State. “Alliance” spoke to the group’s willingness to do outreach and show that mountain bikers weren’t just a backwoods club, but a professional organization capable of sitting at the same table as the Sierra Club, the State Department of Natural Resources, National Forest supervisors, and the hiker Washington Trails Association.
Getting a seat at the table involved a lot of things old-guard mountain bikers truly hated such as going to meetings, mastering land-use policy, cutting deals, and fundraising. “I went to so many meetings, I basically had to give up riding,” recalled Brian Jones, who as BBTC president first laid out a vision for the turnaround in the late 1990s. “I think I gained 20 pounds.”
A big break came when Jones discovered that the state’s Department of Natural Resources had allocated $20,000 to move rocks by helicopter on Tiger Mountain to counter erosion. He talked land managers into giving the money to BBTC instead, then organized volunteer work parties to do the labor through winter in rain and snow, using power tools and brute force.
The money enabled Jones to hire Vander Pol as BBTC’s first executive director half-time at $12,000 a year. For a successful tech entrepreneur, it represented a huge pay cut. But Vander Pol, a financial analyst type who likes to build things when he isn’t going big at Whistler, saw a challenge he couldn’t resist, molding a herding-cats club into a respectable professional organization. He also wound up signing over his salary to Westra for trail projects. “We needed something, just one project, to prove we could be trusted on the follow-through,” Vander Pol said.
The something was Colonnade, an unglamorous skills track beneath Interstate 5, a stone’s throw from downtown Seattle. A steep, rubble pit segmented by huge freeway columns, Colonnade was a wasteland only druggies and the homeless could abide. Doing anything about it, though, posed a multi-jurisdictional thicket involving neighborhood activists, the city of Seattle, King County, and the state’s Department of Transportation. So hey, why not a mountain bike park?
In 2002, Jones drew up an official sounding statement of intent, identifying Colonnade as a top priority for future mountain bike opportunities in the Puget Sound region. What eventually emerged, $250,000 and 10,000 volunteer hours later, was an unforgiving and cramped ride venue consisting of concrete and rock — and dirt that felt like concrete and rock. But it served its greater purpose of legitimizing mountain bikers.
“It confirmed us as an organization that professionally builds trails, as opposed to a non-profit that relies on handouts,” Vander Pol said.
Most important, it greased the skids for the 120-acre Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park set in a suburban green belt 20 minutes from Seattle. Latticed with trail opportunities, Duthie represented more of everything seeded by Colonnade: beginner trails, flow trails, skinnies, drops, a pump track, and big air features.
At the time, King County land managers were looking for areas to add mountain bike access, as a growing mountain biker population was being forced to do much of its riding off the legal grid. “Our staff was concerned about illegal trail building and felt we needed to address it in a proactive manner,” recalled Butch Lovelace, program manager for the King County Parks Department, which oversees 28,000 acres of land. Lovelace credits mountain bikers with putting in the planning and build hours, but what impressed him most was their help getting the surrounding community on board.
“When we identified mountain biking as something we were pursuing, there was resistance from the neighbors,” Lovelace added. “But Evergreen stepped in and worked closely with the neighbors on parking issues, the layout of the park. They deserve huge credit for getting the project over that hump.”
Dedicated in 2010, Duthie Hill was an overnight success. Lovelace recalls encountering a group of senior women on mountain bikes at the park. “We used to hike but our knees gave out,” one told him. “This is how we can still get in the forest.”
Duthie also came to host the first regional (now annual) mountain bike festival and countless skills classes. But its biggest impact has been as a family mountain bike venue, annually drawing 180,000 user visits. If there was any single momentum shifter for mountain biking in the Pacific Northwest — the pilot of today’s juggernaut — Duthie Hill was it. “Duthie was the foundation all we’re seeing today was built on,” Vander Pol confirmed.
Next up was Tiger Mountain, where trails were not only short and eroded, but closed half the year from October 15 to April 15. Kennedy, who had been hired by and then succeeded Vander Pol as BBTC’s executive director, dusted off a recreational management plan that provided for 20 additional miles of trail. Tiger’s supervisor at the time was unreceptive, but suggested Kennedy take up his cause with the department’s recreational management committee, which was dominated by hikers and equestrians. “All I was looking for was a way to get our voice heard,” Kennedy recalled.
Then luck turned in his favor. In 2007, the district gained a new land manager, Sam Jarrett, who was far more open to mountain biking. Jarrett saw that Kennedy was added to the management committee. Prominent on the agenda was state purchase of a 4400-acre chunk of undeveloped private property just east of Tiger Mountain. “That’s where Raging River came from,” Kennedy said.
With Jarrett’s backing, Kennedy quickly talked up Raging River as a mountain biking destination. “Every time someone brought up grumblings about Tiger, we’d move the conversation over to Raging River,” Kennedy recalled. “Of course, the work on Tiger continued to move ahead as well.”
This master political stroke not only diverted complaints over Tiger, it cemented Raging as a set-aside for mountain biking.
Using what Jarrett quantifies as a ton of volunteer labor to gain grant money, DNR and Evergreen built the first new trails on Tiger in 20 years. That led to a handful of connecting loops and the uphill-specific Master Link, eliminating a long-reviled logging road climb. Today, the 14,000-acre state forest offers 23 miles of climbing, flow, and downhill-specific segments. The result is a regional magnet that’s open year round and draws 120,000 annual user visits, double the dark ages of pre-2012.
At the same time, work was proceeding on Olallie and Raging River, which despite not being completed yet, gather hundreds of users each weekend.
More recently, another gem surfaced. Working with the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the Snoqualmie Pass ski resort, Evergreen recently announced a coordinated development effort to build a lift-assist mountain bike park at the resort an hour east of Seattle. The plan is the outgrowth of a meeting last year spearheaded by Bryce Phillips, the owner of evo, an outdoor sports chain store whose bike buyer happens to be Jon Kennedy.
Snoqualmie Pass actually was on the mountain bike radar early, hosting NORBA and World Cup races in the late 1990s. But the trails were double black — rough, ungroomed and frustrating even for skilled riders. Interest fell by the wayside. “Being ahead of the game actually worked against Snoqualmie,” says Phillips. “But today, you’ve got the gear, the bikes, machine build capability — it’s a whole new world.”
Phillips sees the entire gamut of rider styles and skill levels for the park, from cross-country to big air. With the addition of the resort, “You’ll have a dream corridor with mountain biking opportunities all the way up I-90 from Seattle to the pass.”
Evergreen’s Kraus sees no reason why the Seattle metro area and beyond can’t become a mountain bike jewel along the lines of Bend or B.C. Sporting eight chapters, the alliance is working with multiple jurisdictions to add trail throughout the state. Particularly in the spotlight are three largely pristine regions long favored for all-day riding at altitude, the Teanaway River drainage in the central Cascades, the Okanogan high country around Winthrop, and the northeastern Kettle Crest range just south of the Canadian border. “My personal dream is to start a hut-to-hut system in the Ellensburg-Wenatchee area,” Kraus said.
Mountain bikers who suffered through the lean years marvel at the sudden riches. “It’s stunning to me how well everything has aligned,” said Glover, who today works for DNR’s recreation program. “You’ve got not just one or two agencies, you’ve got the Forest Service, State Parks, the Department of Natural Resources, counties, cities, all in the mix simultaneously.”
While it took many hands and many hours, everyone agrees on just a single magic bullet. “Relationships is everything,” said Phil Wolff, recreational manager for the state’s 100,000-acre Capitol Forest. “People like to say you can’t get anything done because of the environment, or the streams, or regulations. But all that stuff can be overcome with good relationships between land managers, loggers, hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers.”
Relationships take time. And patience. And the will to cooperate, to concede some points in order to gain others. To get done the things that are easier said. “I didn’t think what we were doing was rocket science,” explained Vander Pol. “But maybe it was.”
Whatever it was, it worked. And now mountain bikers from Oregon and beyond and coming to the greater Seattle area to ride.
To learn more about the great riding opportunities in Washington State, head over to www.evergreenmtb.org.